Prayer and the Limitations of Language

My wife’s parents invited us on a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Gifts usually run the other direction, but we’re not complaining. I’d never been to Europe before, and hearing everyone speaking a different language struck me oddly. It hit me that language is not a direct equivalent to meaning, but merely a symbolic representation of meaning. It is an artificial layer on top of reality and both arbitrary and changeable.

This is both an odd realization as well as an odd way to begin a blog post on spiritual formation, I know. I’m a bit of a strange guy sometimes.

The thing is, the arbitrariness of language has a curious connection to prayer, I think. Prayer is often thought of as something expressed in words. Granted, some would argue that this is only one means of praying, and perhaps that’s my point, though perhaps this might go in a different direction than people would think. If language is a layer that sits atop reality, then there may be something more going on beyond any words that are spoken or heard. I’m reminded of Paul’s assurance that the Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom. 8:26) There is something more that language, for all its power and versatility, sometimes ends up missing.

Language is a wonderful gift. It allows us to symbolize and communicate in ways that would be impossible without. It can foster community in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be able and points to realities that we’d never know apart from it. But it also can distance us from realities. It can fail to capture the truth. I was on a retreat once where a spiritual director asked me what I wanted to say. After a lot of internal wrestling, I eventually said I felt that if I tried to say something, everything would erupt out of me at once, and it would come out jibberish. He took that at face value and wisely sent me off with the assignment to spend the rest of the day spouting that jibberish. That jibberish was more in line with what was going on in my heart than any words could have expressed.

Sometimes, we pray with words. And sometimes, those words will fail us, but perhaps we ought to keep praying anyway with whatever is available. Groaning, like the Spirit; raw emotion; actions or motion with the body… What would it be like to express yourself to God in a way that was beyond words?

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2 responses

  1. Gives a whole new meaning to “word of God”, too, in my opinion. In our culture, we’ve tossed away anything non-linear, not easily pinned down, mystical, metaphoric, and have turned scripture into the DVD manual to which we build still more word shrines. Your comments remind us that God is after “the story behind the story” not merely our presentational essay we call ‘life.’ Silence is still the safest, best prayer. The rest is gravy.

    July 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

    • Thanks, Robert. There’s more going on in us than just what we can speak as well as the story we build. I don’t know if I’d argue that silence is the best prayer, but sometimes that, too, most certainly has its place.

      July 11, 2012 at 8:29 pm

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